HomeCulture & CitizenshipPronunciation Matters – Part 1

Pronunciation Matters – Part 1




Pronunciation could be a tricky area for both students and teachers, but it is a vital skill for students if they wish to be understood in the real world. Pronunciation expert, Robin Walker, author of Teaching the Pronunciation of English as a Lingua Franca, gives his views on teaching pronunciation.

Q: How has the attitude to teaching pronunciation changed recently (if at all)?

RW: I don’t really know, but if I think about pronunciation at teacher’s conferences, I have to conclude that the attitude most prevalent today is lack of interest. There are very few talks on pronunciation at conferences now, and attendance at these talks is too often closer to ten than to a hundred and ten. Similarly, if you browse through teacher’s magazines, you don’t find too many articles or regular features on pronunciation.

Q: Does pronunciation matter?

RW: Teachers know from experience that poor pronunciation means poor fluency – you can’t be fluent if you can’t get your tongue around a sound, or get the words out of your mouth. In fact, learners actually avoid words or grammatical structures that they find difficult to pronounce. Then of course, if your pronunciation is poor, listening can be a nightmare, either because you simply don’t hear key sounds or words, or because you have to dedicate so much processing power to listening that your brain very quickly overloads and blocks.

Less obvious is the impact of poor pronunciation on reading and writing. At the level of writing, the impact might be merely anecdotal. My students would often write ‘crap’ instead of ‘crab’ because of limitations in their pronunciation. But at the end of her talk on L2 reading at the 2008 IATEFL Conference, OUP author Catherine Walter told the audience that if their learners wanted to read better, they would have to improve their pronunciation. She was not being facetious here. She was basing this invaluable piece of advice on serious academic research into how we read.

Speaking, listening, writing, reading – competence in all four skills is closely related to competence in pronunciation. The same is obviously true for vocabulary, and even for grammar, as is witnessed by the pronunciation CD that accompanies the Oxford English Grammar Course.

Q: What advice would you give to teachers who are new to pronunciation?

RW: First, I’d tell them not to be afraid of teaching pronunciation. You might make mistakes occasionally at the beginning, but it’s far better to teach pronunciation and make occasional mistakes than not to teach it at all. You can’t change your learners’ ages, nor their different individual aptitudes for pronunciation, but as a teacher you can very strongly influence their attitude to it by showing them that pronunciation matters. Teach it, and teach it regularly. And value what you teach by including pronunciation in any interim or end-of-course evaluations.

Secondly, I’d tell teachers who don’t have one of the prestige native-speaker accents that they can and should still teach pronunciation. I had a colleague from Glasgow, for example, who for a long time avoided teaching pronunciation for fear he’d ‘contaminate’ his learners. Yet he himself was perfectly understood wherever he went as a teacher trainer so his accent clearly wasn’t a problem. Similarly, non-native speaker teachers worry too much about not having a ‘perfect’ accent, by which they mean they don’t sound like a native speaker. But why should they? They aren’t native speakers. And, just as with my Glasgow colleague, if their experience of using English as they travel or when they are at conferences shows that their accent is intelligible to the vast majority of listeners, then their accent is not a problem.

More important still, I’d tell non-native speaker teachers, who are the huge majority of teachers around the world, that they bring something very special to pronunciation teaching – they bring their own personal experience of learning the pronunciation of English. No native speaker has this experience, nor ever can have it, but it is experience that can make a non-native speaker teacher an excellent instructor for pronunciation, as well as a meaningful, realistic target for learners to aspire to.

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  1. Bad pronunciation matters a lot if it hinders communication. At a more advanced level of the language, good pronunciation means “mastery”. No matter how respectable your grammar is, a poor pronunciation will run aground your linguistic effort consistently. Therefore it is always best to focus on pronunciation first, especially phoneme quality, before advancing into grammar and fluency. Studies have shown that accent is never dropped since babies babble in their native languages even before they can utter proper words. A foreign accent can be reduced close to native-like but not dropped (consequently, teaching intonation patterns is a waste of time). In fact, some native anglophones have accents which may hinder communication among themselves. This is where speakers of other languages decide whether to learn American or British pronunciation. Americans find certain British accents hard to understand, and likewise. I’m afraid I cannot agree with the statement here about bad pronunciation hindering fluency. I don’t believe they are even related. Just to illustrate from a well-known case: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ihRD8H4c8Rs.

  2. Thnx alot for this great post, I ve been thinking about it recently, also we should be talking about practices and what makes learners need to learn it;otherwise they regard it waste of time.

  3. I am an Australian teaching English to Vietnamese students. Some times a student’s pronunciation is so poor it holds him/her back from gaining a better (more financial) position in the business world. I think pronunciation is vital to language learning.

  4. I couldn’t agree more with Mr Walker. I teach English to adults and teaching them how to speak English properly is key to a better communication, even with me, and to understanding when native speakers speak since they develop the right expectations when listening. The better pronunciation they have, the more they understand.If the trend is, don’t teach pronunciation in the class, after teaching English for almost 20 years, I strongly oppose it. Many students just don’t pick it up, especially grown-ups.What’s more, after conducting a survey, I noticed that all of them loved the pronunciation part of the class because they consider it extremely useful.

  5. Thanks everyone for your comments. I’m glad I’m not the only one in ELT that thinks that pronunciation is important, and let’s hope the in the future we see more talks at conferences and more artices in magazines on this central area of learning English.

    Cande, you mentioned that in a survey you did your students had indicated that they really appreciate the work you do on pronunciation. There’s a topic for a talk or an article. I’d certainly love to see the results. Why don’t you think about publishing?

    Grisel, thanks for the link to the Domingo Cavallo video. It was fascinating to watch, and he is certainly fluent in English (and passionate). He also has a very marked Spanish-English accent, but I’ve successfully understood everything he has said on first listening and in real time, except for one word, ‘currency’, at the very beginning of the video, when I had no idea who he was or what he was talking about (i.e. I had no context, so couldn’t top-down process his words).

    So how is that I can do this? The answer lies in the difference between intelligibility and accent. His accent is a long way from any NS norm that I am familiar with, but as the work of highly-regarded Canadian researchers Derwing and Munro has reliably demonstrated, their is no actual relationship between accent and intelligibility. “One very robust finding in our work is that accent and intelligibility are not the same thing. A speaker can have a very strong accent, yet be perfectly understood.”

    Domingo Cavallo is a clear case in point. He has a very pronounced accent when compared to a US or UK standard accent such as GA or RP, but he is intelligible and fluent (and looking very effective as a speaker).

    I don’t deny, of course, that many listeners make subjective judgements about a person because of their accent, and if you read the top comments on the Cavallo video, you see that many posts are very derogatory about his accent, but also about his economic policies and his tustworthiness. He was clearly not popular among Argentinians. But these people confuse accent and intelligibility, something that we, as ELT professionals must be very careful not to do.

  6. A good piece of advice by Mr Walker! Pronunciation matters a lot though not the accent. Sometimes it affects how students spell the words e.g. when they miss schwa in the words like magazine & kangaroo, they wrongly spell it as magzine & kangroo very often.

    • I’ve seen numerous spelling mistakes traceable to poor pronunciation over the years, Yasmeen, and as you rightly point out, a lot are due to not pcking up on schwa and other connected speech modifications in colloquial native speaker English. I used to teach English to tourism students, and year in year out they would describe a local dish as ‘hake in crap’ sauce. Their Spanish L1 phonology meant they didn’t generally pick up on the difference between final ‘p’ and final ‘b’.

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